Police the learning, or support the right to learn?

Jane Bozarth has two pieces of advice for learning professionals: get comfortable with technology so you can use it, and let go of control.  The second part stood out for me, especially after seeing elsewhere last week a blog comment about the need to “police the learning.”

I’m restraining the urge to rant about corporate control freaks.  For one thing, I’ve often had to work with “compliance training”–mandatory sessions on manufacturing procedures or EEOC requirements or some other topic.  You can fuss about the need for such requirements, but in the short term, the organization hasn’t got much choice.

I’ve also been thinking more about gradation; thinking in either/or fashion is easy, but not always productive.


Take that term “policing.”  Coming so close to Canada Day, it brought to mind Maintiens le droit, the motto of the RCMP.

You can translate it in more than one way: “uphold the law,” for example, or “support the right.”

If I study “police the learning,” I can read it as, “Make sure they learn what they’re supposed to.”  And that can have more than one interpretation:

  • Help them learn what the job requires.
  • Help them learn what they require.

On the job requirement side, I’m the first to agree that there are things that an organization needs its people to do: use compatible tools, confirm to particular policies, following procedural timelines, work within legal and ethical standards.

If you’re a sales rep for Transgalactic Widgets, we want you using our custom sales software–not because it’s the best on earth, but because you’re part of a team of 1,500 people putting data in and getting data out.  And anytime you deal with Perrault and Pryzbylski, Inc., we want you using the customer contact report in our software so as to share what you know with the rest of us.

Mostly, that’s straightforward, procedural stuff (what Ten Steps to Complex Learning calls recurrent tasks).  “Policing” might really mean making clear to people what the policy or practice is, helping them follow it, and removing obstacles so they can get done what they need to get done.

The non-recurrent tasks, those things people do in different ways each time they do them, aren’t really open to “policing,” though.  If my goal is to help the sales force get more skillful with analyzing leads, planning pitches, and working with a customer’s particular situation, then command-and-control approaches aren’t going to get me there.

In other words, even in the supposedly straightforward use of the sales system, we’ll need judgment, insight, creativity, and especially the insight of the people who are the sales system.  Otherwise, the stuff on laptops and servers is just a bunch of code with no place to go.

That’s all wrapped inside learning what the job requires.  Remember, though, there’s another angle: help people learn what they require.  Like their personal job-related goals.  Or goals they’re worked out, as individuals, with their manager or their teammates.

The goals might relate to what they want to be able to do in the current job, or what they want to be able to do in new contexts–a changing definition of their job, or an entire new role.

There’s no way you can support that kind of learning if you’re mainly thinking about is maintaining control and enforcing The One True Approach.  As Jane Bozarth suggests, learning professionals in organizations need skill in

…tolerating ambiguity, letting learners take over the learning, and coping with ‘messy’ conversations….Can this new attitude be developed? I think so, if the trainer-person is actually interested in helping others learn, in enriching the experience, and in working as a guide alongside rather than sage on the stage.